QUICK to explain President Bush's plummeting popularity, his top economic and campaign advisers blame themselves for a bad public-relations job. They extol the administration's effort to create a path toward economic recovery, and they point to obstacles they say were set up by Congress along the way.
At a White House briefing last week, Michael Boskin, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, asserted that "Bush has done a good job managing the economy" and, if Congress had only passed the White House economic growth agenda proposed last January, "we'd be on our way to creating a half-million more jobs this year."
Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton says rhetoric will not win the support of the crucial "Big 10" states, those with the most electoral votes: California, New York, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey and North Carolina. Most of them have been hard hit by unemployment, business failures, and budget cuts.
National Conference of State Legislatures president Paul Burke says that "states' finances are at a very low point," and "most evidence indicates that economic recovery will continue to be slow."
Referring to the White House's just-released Mid-Session Review of the nation's economy, Mr. Boskin offers the document as useful "to see what [the White House] has proposed, and what Congress has passed."
Office of Management and Budget director Richard Darman sounds a familiar "Congress failed to act" refrain as he runs down the list of "economic growth" bills Mr. Bush has sent to Capitol Hill: proposed tax credits, investment incentives for research and development, and a host of measures ranging from health-care reform to deficit reduction.
Economists and political analysts say that it is going to take a lot more than apportioning blame to galvanize a majority of American voters. Businesses and consumers are still encumbered by high debt, and the spending and investment needed to fuel a strong recovery will likely come many months after the November election. GOP on the offensive
Meanwhile, Republicans have gone on the offensive in an attempt to deflate public interest in the economic plan of Democratic challenger Clinton.
In an appeal to a broad base of American voters, OMB director Darman cautions that the Arkansas governor's plan to raise taxes on the rich would open a Pandora's box of taxation on every American taxpayer. "There's no such thing as a tax just on millionaires.... That's a bit of a fraud," he says. "Because when they [Democratic leaders] need more revenue, they'll just" include a lower income level to tax at a higher level.
The Republicans promise to put atop the political agenda doing away with regulations that eat into businesses' bottom line and threaten their employment rolls. Targeting voters in states with large manufacturing plants, including the "Big Ten," Republican strategist Charles Black warns that "environmental extremism" would result from Mr. Clinton's proposals.
He says measures that would require businesses to apply stricter, and more costly, emission controls, for example, would lead to more job losses.
To improve the business climate in the near term, Boskin says, "The president is doing all he can unilaterally to reduce the regulatory burden." Boskin says the economy will continue to grow this year, given increased business confidence.
But chambers of commerce across the United States, and small business groups, are not upbeat about their members' growth prospects. Firms discouraged
Economist David Levy at Bard College's Jerome Levy Economics Institute says: "Increasing idle capacity and declining profitability are discouraging firms from investments in new plants and equipment, the economy's greatest stimulant."
The US Department of Commerce is scheduled to issue revised growth-rate statistics later this week for the nation's economy during 1989, 1990, and 1991.
The time frame - the first three years of the Bush presidency and a recessionary period of the economy - is sensitive for the White House. If the nation's goods and services grew at an even slower rate than previously recorded, the new results could be highly charged. Second-quarter 1992 estimates will be released later today.
Perhaps in anticipation of disappointing growth rates for the second quarter, ending in June, or downward revisions on economic growth, Boskin said last week that "if the president's full program had been enacted in 1989, we would not have had the recession."